Unjust Criticism of Pope Francis’ Misericordiae Vultus

Over at Crisis Magazine, yet another author is harming the Church with false and incompetent teaching. In an article titled Misericordiae Vultus: Mercy Without Repentance?, Christian Browne speaks about Pope Francis in a condescending and judgmental manner. He speaks as if the Pope did not have the role to teach and correct him, and as if he, a Catholic layperson, had the role to teach and correct the Supreme Pontiff. Is it not a sin to treat the Vicar of Christ in this way? But let’s look at some of Browne’s specific errors.

First, Browne criticizes the papal bull Misericordiae Vultus (MV), issued by Pope Francis to proclaim the Year of Mercy, for its emphasis on love and forgiveness, for its strong, “even exclusive, emphasis on God’s inexhaustible love and forgiveness, with hardly a condemnatory note.” What strange Pharisaical version of Christianity is this, in which the Pope is criticized for emphasizing love and forgiveness in a papal document on the topic of God’s Mercy? The two great commandments are love God above all else, and love your neighbor as yourself. And it is not the Church’s role to condemn, but to lead to salvation. The Our Father emphasizes the need to forgive others, and so does the Gospel teaching more generally:

{6:14} For if you will forgive men their sins, your heavenly Father also will forgive you your offenses.
{6:15} But if you will not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive you your sins.

{6:36} Therefore, be merciful, just as your Father is also merciful.
{6:37} Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.

{8:10} Then Jesus, raising himself up, said to her: “Woman, where are those who accused you? Has no one condemned you?”
{8:11} And she said, “No one, Lord.” Then Jesus said: “Neither will I condemn you. Go, and now do not choose to sin anymore.”

Yes, at the particular judgment, each soul is judged by God, and some souls are condemned to Hell — or judged worthy of temporal punishment in Purgatory. But notice the similarity between Jesus’ response to the woman caught in adultery and Pope Francis’ approach to sinners in need of mercy. There is no implied approval of grave sin in treating everyone with mercy. A “condemnatory note” is not needed. In fact Jesus says “Neither will I condemn you.” So criticizing the holy Roman Pontiff for emphasizing mercy in a document on the Year of Mercy is just astounding.

Second, Browne falsely claims that Pope Francis ignores the concept of sin and its relation to mercy: “For Francis extolls the glory of God’s mercy, but with nary a mention of the reason man needs his mercy — sin.” To the contrary, MV repeatedly mentions sin and the need of the sinner for mercy:

“After the sin of Adam and Eve, God did not wish to leave humanity alone in the throes of evil.

The same invitation is extended to those who either perpetrate or participate in corruption. This festering wound is a grave sin that cries out to heaven for vengeance, because it threatens the very foundations of personal and social life.

It would not be out of place at this point to recall the relationship between justice and mercy…. God’s justice now becomes the liberating force for those oppressed by slavery to sin and its consequences. God’s justice is his mercy (cf. Ps 51:11-16). Mercy is not opposed to justice but rather expresses God’s way of reaching out to the sinner, offering him a new chance to look at himself, convert, and believe.

Though we feel the transforming power of grace, we also feel the effects of sin typical of our fallen state. Despite being forgiven, the conflicting consequences of our sins remain. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, God forgives our sins, which he truly blots out; and yet sin leaves a negative effect on the way we think and act. But the mercy of God is stronger than even this. It becomes indulgence on the part of the Father who, through the Bride of Christ, his Church, reaches the pardoned sinner and frees him from every residue left by the consequences of sin, enabling him to act with charity, to grow in love rather than to fall back into sin.”

In MV, Pope Francis discusses original sin and personal sin. He says that grave sins cry out to Heaven for vengeance, (which in the Christian context means retributive justice, not revenge). Pope Francis warns us about the oppression of slavery to sin. He makes it clear that mercy does not nullify justice, but calls the sinner to convert. Then he goes on at some length about sin, the fallen state, and the consequences of sin.

So the claim by Browne that Pope Francis offers “nary a mention of the reason man needs mercy” is false. MV is not a papal encyclical, but only a brief papal bull. For such a short document, the discussion of sin found therein is more than sufficient to refute Browne’s claim.

Third, Browne seems to think that only the repentant sinner can receive God’s mercy. He writes: “In order to call man to embrace God’s mercy, it is necessary first to call him to repentance” and “Only those who know the need for God’s mercy can appreciate its wonders” and “mercy has no meaning without a consciousness of sin and of God’s judgment.”

Is it possible to receive mercy without repentance? No? Then how did the sinless Virgin Mary receive mercy? It is important to consider the relationship between mercy and sin, but God’s mercy is not merely a response to sin. When the infinitely good God created the finite human persons Adam and Eve — sinless prior to the fall — it was an act of mercy. And when God created the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Immaculate Conception, sinless and perfect, it was an act of mercy. For she is a finite creature before the infinite Creator. When God gave Mary immense graces throughout her life, it was an act of God’s mercy. For the finite creature does not deserve to exist, and cannot demand anything of the infinite God.

But we poor fallen sinners always receive the benefits of God’s mercy, even before we repent, even if we never repent. For we are unable to repent unless we first receive the prevenient grace of God. Every sin is a sin precisely because we could have avoided that sin. The prevenient grace of God makes the mind able to know right from wrong, and makes the will truly free and truly able to subsequently cooperate with grace. Every sinner receives grace prior to the choice: to sin or to avoid sin, to repent or to refuse to repent, to cooperate with subsequent grace or not.

Every sinner who enters the state of grace by any form of baptism receives the prevenient grace of justification. For the holy Catholic Church teaches that, in adults, the beginning of that justification is derived from the prevenient grace of God, through Jesus Christ, that is to say, from His vocation, whereby, without any merits existing on their parts, they are called. Baptism is a manifestation of the Father’s prevenient love. Every Christian vocation finds its foundation in the gratuitous and prevenient choice made by the Father. However, it would be a grave doctrinal error to claim instead that, without the prevenient inspiration of the Holy Spirit and without his help, a human person can believe, hope, love, or be penitent as he should, so that the grace of Justification may next be bestowed upon him.

Did the Blessed Virgin Mary cooperate with every grace she received? Of course not. To make such a claim would be abject heresy. Mary never cooperated with the prevenient grace of God. But she did cooperate fully with the subsequent grace of God. But my point here is that mercy is not dependent on the prior repentance of the sinner. Rather, mercy is first received in the form of the operating grace of God, prior to a decision of the sinner to repent or not, to cooperate with subsequent grace or not. “But God demonstrates his love for us in that, while we were yet sinners, at the proper time, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8-9).

Christian Browne has a poor understanding of grace. And as a result, he misunderstands the mercy of God.

But, and this is my fourth point, this ignorance does not excuse him for treating the Supreme Pontiff in a condescending and judgmental manner, as if it were Browne’s role to teach and correct the Pope and not the other way around. He begins by referring to Pope Francis as “Pope Francis”. But for the rest of the article, he calls the holy Roman Pontiff only “Francis”, neglecting any terms referring to the Pope’s role as the Supreme Teacher and Supreme Shepherd of the universal Church on earth. And the overall tone of the article is disrespectful toward the holy Pontiff. Browne speaks as if his own view could not err and had no need of support from a theological argument. He offers only an “ipse dixit” argument. Then, too, he speaks with disrespect toward the most recent Ecumenical Council, and he accuses the Pope of being “determined to advance the discredited notion of the ‘Spirit of Vatican II’ “. By the way, Pope Saint John Paul II himself often used the term “Spirit of Vatican II” with a positive connotation; it is not a “discredited notion”.

What is happening in the Church today? Why is it so common among conservative Catholics that each considers himself or herself qualified to judge and to correct the Vicar of Christ, the Supreme Teacher chosen by God? They have not bothered to learn the Catholic Faith before going forth to teach it. Then they accept teaching and correction from no one, not even the Pope. But they somehow think themselves qualified to teach and correct everyone, including the Pope.

My fellow Catholics, you will all be put to the test. At the Synod of Bishops, Pope Francis will teach and correct; he will make decisions on both doctrine and discipline. Those who reject this exercise of the proper authority of the Pope will fall away from the one true Church. Pray that you may humbly accept teaching and correction from the Roman Pontiff. For the humble publican went away justified before God, but the arrogant and condescending Pharisee did not.

{18:10} “Two men ascended to the temple, in order to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a tax collector.
{18:11} Standing, the Pharisee prayed within himself in this way: ‘O God, I give thanks to you that I am not like the rest of men: robbers, unjust, adulterers, even as this tax collector chooses to be.
{18:12} I fast twice between Sabbaths. I give tithes from all that I possess.’
{18:13} And the tax collector, standing at a distance, was not willing to even lift up his eyes to heaven. But he struck his chest, saying: ‘O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’
{18:14} I say to you, this one descended to his house justified, but not the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled; and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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4 Responses to Unjust Criticism of Pope Francis’ Misericordiae Vultus

  1. Francisco says:

    I can’t believe that some commentators don’t even give our Supreme Pontiff at least, and I mean, at least, the benefit of the doubt on matters of Church teaching which conflicts with their own understanding and remain silent as the Virgin Mary prudentially was, as an example; but immediately assume that they know Church’s doctrine better than the Pope, and assume that the Church was built on them. It has to be clear to Catholics that our Church today is built on our current Pope Francis by Jesus Christ Himself, as She was built on past Popes starting with Peter, and will continue to be built on future Popes until His Glorious return. The Vicar of Christ is our Shepherd and teacher on earth, so the attitude to teach our teacher is arrogant.

    Didn’t Jesus appoint – one – specific person to lead His Church, with the metaphorical use of Shepherd and sheep, until He comes back? Or He told everyone, you and me?

    Is this A NEW Gospel?

    {21:15} Then, when they had dined, Jesus said to [YOUR NAME HERE], “[YOUR NAME HERE], son of _______, do you love me more than these?” He said to [YOU], “[YOU FILL THE BLANK__________]” He said to [YOUR NAME HERE], “Feed my lambs.”
    {21:16} He said to [YOU] again: “[YOUR NAME HERE], do you love me?” [YOU] said to him, “[YOU FILL THE BLANK__________]” He said to [YOUR NAME HERE], “Feed my lambs.”
    {21:17} He said to [YOU] a third time, “[YOUR NAME HERE], do you love me?” “[YOUR NAME HERE] _______________________, “Do you love me?” And so [YOU] said to [YOUR NAME HERE]: ““[YOU FILL THE BLANK__________]” He said to him, “Feed my sheep.

    If this is so, then there are so many leaders of the Church now (and many contradicting each other), and the Pope is just another “average Joe”.

    Each of us have our own vocations in the body of the Church, but we are not the Pope, unless you are Pope Francis.

  2. William Merlock says:

    “Mercy is not dependent on the prior repentance of the sinner.” Another example: *every* infant baptism, the child is shown mercy (the removal of original sin) without repentance or even awareness of the act. It would seem that Mr. Browne needs to correct his own errors before he attempts to find such in others, particularly the man chosen by the Holy Spirit to guide the Church.

  3. Maureen Glasscott says:

    “But we poor fallen sinners always receive the benefits of God’s mercy, even before we repent, even if we never repent.” That’s revisionist thinking. If that was the case, why would we ever need to receive the Sacraments (Penance, Holy Eucharist)? Why were they instituted by Christ in the first place? I’m not sure your proven Browne wrong.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Prevenient grace is given mercifully by God to everyone, even to unrepentant sinners. It is God’s operating grace; God acting on the human person prior to cooperation. Only subsequent to our reception of prevenient grace can we then possibly cooperate with grace (which is then called “subsequent grace”). We need to cooperate with grace, in order to work toward our salvation. So the Sacraments are still necessary.

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